Entrepreneurial Projects at the Yale School of Music: Why Classical Music Needs Audience Interviews

In our last post, we explored how the students in my collaborative project class at the Yale School of Music (“YSM”) identified their audiences and designed projects to meet the needs of their audience members. The next step was to test out and share prototypes of their projects with the intended audience members to see how well their projects met the needs of their audiences. As we will see, my students learned that audience interviews are an essential step in keeping classical music relevant and vital in our culture.

Let’s explore the audience interview process and see what my students learned from their interviews.

 The Four Project Prototypes

An important part of the design-thinking process is to test out your ideas with the intended audience by creating prototypes of the project idea. Prototypes are inexpensive, quickly created representations of the project idea. They can take the form of a poster, a video, a photograph, an audio recording or anything else that conveys what the project is about.

The students created the following prototypes:

 1. Engaging and Fun Classical Music Concert 


A concert to engage Yale students outside of the School of Music with activities showing the links between popular music and classical music to meet the needs of these students for fun and greater understanding of classical music.


A 20-second clip of the video of the rock version of the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

2. Classical Comfort


A multi-sensory musical experience in a comfortable, low-key setting for Yale students outside of the School of Music who needed comfort at the end of a stressful semester.


A poster conveying the idea of a comfortable, low-key event:


3. Holistic Musician Podcast for Stressed-out YSM students


A podcast interview with a YSM faculty member to help YSM students who feel stressed about performing and their career prospects.


A Facebook page announcement of the podcast series with a list of topics:

“Hey guys! Are you a stressed out musician at YSM? Are you stuck in the practice room
feeling anxious about auditions or a recital coming up? If so, check out our new
podcast, “The Holistic Musician” where we bring on professional guests from different
fields within music and mental health to talk about all the things that might be stressing
you out. We understand how difficult it can be becoming a professional musician in
today’s field, so we’re here to create a safe space to talk about these things and offer
some advice! “Insert emojis”
Join us December 10th for Episode 1 featuring YSM’s own Embedded Mental Health
Counselor, Dr. Arielle Rubinstein. Be sure to TUNE in here at this link: ….(insert link)”

4. Project Music Supplies


A drive for instruments and music supplies to supplement the resources of YSM’s teaching artist program for children in underserved communities in New Haven, Music in the Schools (“MISI”) to meet the needs of MISI students for a quality educational experience.


A poster announcing the instrument and music supplies drive:

Audience Interviews and Communication Styles and Skills

It was now time to conduct the interviews.  For many students, the initial reaction to conducting audience interviews was one of near horror.  In the words of one student,  “No way do I want to talk to strangers!”.  That’s why we spend time preparing for these interviews.  Here are the steps we took to prepare.

  1. Spotting and Leveraging Communication Styles 

We first learn about the four communication styles:

  • Driver: the person who likes to take control and come quickly to a decision
  • Analytic: the person who focuses on details and data before making a decision
  • Amiable: the person who cares about the relationships in the group and needs to feel comfortable in order to share her ideas
  • Expressive: the person who bubbles over with ideas and focuses on the big picture rather than the details.

My students took a communication styles assessment to understand their default way of communicating and to learn how to spot the styles in other people. Using communication styles is an effective way to connect with others and deliver information in a way that the listener will understand your message.  With knowledge of the different ways that people communicate, students were equipped to spot the preferred communication styles of their interview subjects. They were also able to frame their questions in such a way that the audience members would feel comfortable responding.\

  1. LOCAV Communication Skills

Another aspect of communication involves the five basic communication skills under the rubric of LOCAV

  • Listening:

Paying attention to and focusing complete attention on the listener without interrupting or interjecting your points

  • Open-ended Questions:

Engaging others in dialogue, as opposed to asking yes/no questions, so that you can have an in-depth discussion

  • Clarification:

Making sure that you understand exactly what the speaker said and clearing up any confusion

  • Acknowledgement:

Paraphrasing what you have just heard so that your collaborator knows that you are paying attention

  • Validation

Recognizing the legitimacy of that person’s feelings and/or point of view to let her know that she has a right to feel that way.

With these skills, my students had useful tools with which to engage in dialogue and obtain vital information from their target audience members.

  1. Empathy Role-Playing Exercises

To practice both communication styles and LOCAV skills, we engaged in a role-play exercise where my students were asked to play the role of stressed-out Yale art students from the Schools of Art, Drama, Architecture, and Yale College.   Role-playing is an excellent way to teach empathy.  Accordingly, I encouraged my students to inhabit the role of stressed-out arts students at Yale.

For our scenario, we invited the non-music arts students to an end-of-semester interactive musical event. The event featured stress-relieving activities like meditation and short lectures on creating optimism and career-building in the arts, paired with musical performances by YSM students. There were also small group sessions for students to meet and mingle, along with comforting stress-relieving food and drinks.

My students had a great time with this exercise which helped them see the world from the point of view of non-music arts peers. Moreover, it gave them practice in framing and asking good questions and listening carefully to the answers.

Audience Interview Preparation 

There were two more steps to prepare for the interview

  1. Location of Target Audience Members

First, each group had to figure out where to find their audience members.

All four groups zeroed in on audiences that they could access easily. The two “performance” groups targeted non-music students at Yale University. The podcast group’s audience was also easy to access:  fellow Yale School of Music students who were experiencing stress around their career choices.

The Project Music Supplies group had two members who were part of YSM’s teaching artist program, Music in the Schools (“MIS”).  As such, the group members had easy access to three different stakeholders in the MISI program: parents, students and teachers.

  1. Interview Script

Moreover, each group prepared a list of questions for their interview subjects. I provided them with a sample interview script which they were free to develop and adapt to their interviews. Each student was instructed to conduct 10-minute interviews of 5-6 people so that the groups would have 20-25 sets of data.

Conducting Audience Interviews 

The students were now ready to conduct their interviews.  This involved the following steps:

  1. Build rapport with the interview subject;
  2. Explore their experience with the problem they were solving through their projects (classical music, stress at YSM or studying music at MISI);
  3. Show the prototype to gauge their reaction and see how well it solves their problem; and
  4. Listen to their feedback, all the while remaining neutral.

Using the Stanford d. School’s Bootleg as a guide, students collected the following data:

  1. What did they say?  Collect quotes
  2. ​What did they do? Observe their actions and behaviors
  3. What were they thinking?  Make inferences from your observations of body language, tone of voice and choice of words.
  4. How were they feeling? Make inferences from your observations of body language, tone of voice and choice of words.

My students enjoyed their interviews!  Many of the students who were initially nervous about the process found that with each interview, they got better at asking questions, listening for the responses, and gaining valuable insights from their audience members.

Meeting to Synthesize Data and Update Projects

After the students concluded their interviews, each group met to discuss the findings from the data. They explored what themes and patterns emerged, discussed their findings, and synthesized the collective information.  The students then revised and updated their projects in order to address the concerns and meet the needs of their audience members.

Results of the Audience Interviews

The audience interviews provided a rich learning experience for each group:

  1. Engaging and Fun Classical Music Concert

This group had a remarkable finding.  While they set out to create an engaging, educational concert for their non-music Yale peers, they quickly learned that most of their interviewees were not interested in attending a live classical music concert! Many interview subjects found classical music inaccessible or unengaging, particularly in a concert setting. There was a sense that classical music concerts were not culturally connected to their lives.  In addition, many interviewees found that classical music often felt too long or demanding in terms of attention span.

Our students also learned that their interview subjects felt unprepared or undereducated about classical music, which hindered their ability to enjoy it.  In addition, several interviewees indicated a preference for digital or online experiences over live concerts.

Our students were very surprised by these findings. One student remarked that this was her first exposure to people who did not like classical music.  It made her understand why many people are concerned about the future of our beloved genre.

As a result, the group decided to pivot from a live concert to a digital format highlighting the connection between popular and classical music. Each student would perform a work and then speak about it.  Moreover, the videos would include examples of pop songs, along with visuals, and quotes from other media.  Finally, the videos would be shared and live-streamed on Instagram and Facebook.

  1. Classical Comfort

This was the second project where our students proposed to perform for their non-music Yale peers.  Their focus differed from the first group since their project hypothesis was that Yale students would enjoy a classical music concert in a comfortable, chill setting to help destress at the end of the semester.

Our students in this group also learned that their peers were not used to attending live classical music concerts or even listening to classical music. In fact, most of their Yale peers said that they were more interested in free food and an opportunity to socialize than in listening to music.  Moreover, many students said that they did not like having to go somewhere to listen to music. They also reported that they were too busy to attend a concert.  However, they might be more interested if a friend was going and if there was less of a commitment to attend.

Our students were quite surprised that the emphasis was on socializing and on free food, as opposed to the music.  Undaunted by these challenges, they viewed the feedback as an opportunity to create an event that would resonate with the younger generation of non-music students.

Accordingly, they redesigned their project to create a multisensory, stress-relieving evening of classical music with a European Christmas-market theme:

  • An emphasis on the relaxed nature of the event, inviting people to attend in their pajamas or in sweats
  • A comforting, inviting and informal space with lighting, décor and holiday aromas
  • Great food and drink (for free)
  • A drop in/drop out event spanning two hours
  • Fun activities for the audience, like doodling
  • A program of music, featuring items from the Baroque to the modern day and opening and closing with a gorgeous mezzo-soprano chant.
  1. Holistic Musician Podcast for Stressed-out Yale School of Music students

The audience members of this group were fellow YSM students who were experiencing stressed.  These students warmly and enthusiastically welcomed the podcast project as valuable and necessary.  In fact, they found that the podcast filled a void at YSMThey were attracted to a podcast featuring the School’s embedded psychologist to speak about common challenges that music students face, like performance anxiety, perfectionism, and imposter syndrome.  The group adopted a suggestion from their interviews to distribute the episodes via a QR code for easy access to the podcast.  Our students also learned that their peers preferred short, 15-minute episodes over longer episodes.

In addition, the interviews themselves provided a benefit both to the members of the group as well as to their peers.  The interviews provided a safe space for fellow students to vent and share their frustrations and challenges.   As for the group members, the interviews made them feel closer and more connected to the YSM community. My students in this group also appreciated the opportunity to learn and practice techniques that would help to discover audience member needs when creating their own concert programs and even music festivals.

  1. Project Music Supplies

This group’s decision to partner with MISI made the audience interviews much easier. They learned that students, parents, and teachers were all frustrated when their instruments did not work properly or sound good.  In addition, parents cited the expense of purchasing instruments and music supplies. As such, the idea of a drive for these items was very appealing and validated our students’ project.

Our students further learned that it was more effective to solicit donations through one-on-one conversations as opposed to email.  In addition, people were more likely to contribute if our students were able to pick up donations rather than  have a drop-off box.  They also discovered that their initial request of all music supplies was too broad and would have resulted in broken and unusable items.  Therefore, they decided to focus on soliciting supplies from the YSM community who knew what would be useful to young musicians.  They also reduced the scope of their request to specific items:  reeds, valve oil, mouthpieces, cleaning cloths/solutions, metronomes, tuners, strings, thumb and shoulder rests

 Learning from the Audience Interviews

The audience interviews provided a rich learning experience for our students with applications beyond the class.

For students who were initially worried about interacting with strangers, they learned to be brave! One technique that helped was to start with someone you knew.  That provided the safety to take the risk and to practice the interview techniques. As one student remarked,

“Taking this experience to my personal or professional life, whenever I encounter a task
where I have no idea where to even begin, I will first start with what I can do and at last,
I will be able to finish the task. That way, I will have less fear on starting something new.”

Many students found that with each interview, they improved their techniques, grew more confident and had more productive, engaged conversations.  The LOCAV tools and our interview role-play with open-ended questions were a highlight.  Students appreciated learning the art of communication both as a way to be a better collaborator and as a way to connect effectively with audiences.

Students also appreciated learning what their audiences needed and refining their projects to meet these needs.  This will help in building connections with future audiences.

In short, audience interviews are a powerful way to connect with audiences, discover what they truly need, and design projects, events, concerts, initiatives, and the like to meet the needs of our audiences.  My students learned valuable lessons on what we can do to keep classical music alive and vital in our culture!